Think tanks CEOs at Runnymede forge next 'Magna Carta moment'

CEO Summit participants and Atlas Network staff gather for a group photo on the footbridge connecting Eaton and Windsor.

It was just a year ago this month that the world celebrated the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, a conciliatory agreement between King John and his noble lords at a swampy site called Runnymede about 20 miles west of London. The document served both to legally and rhetorically limit the king’s power and subjugate him to the rule of law. Today, it is celebrated as a near singular inflection point in the cause of limited government and individual liberty.

Last week, think tank CEOs from Europe and the United States gathered at Runnymede for an intensive two-day summit to develop a strategy for creating the next “Magna Carta moment” — meaning, a widely publicized and widely favored shift in power away from centralized political leadership and toward the individual.

Guest lecturer and head of education at Institute of Economic Affairs Dr. Stephen Davies explained the critical events that led to King John agreeing to the terms of Magna Carta in 1215, and asked participants to consider what those insights can tell us about our political challenges today.

“We inaugurated this summit last year in Vilnius, Lithuania,” explained Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips. “We saw an opportunity to boost the network by strengthening ties among the CEOs, but what emerged from that energetic first summit inspired us to raise our ambitions even higher and to reconvene this year with the goal of finalizing a shared strategy for going on offense together.”

London-based Institute of Economic Affairs General Director Mark Littlewood makes a case for the opportunities ahead for think tanks that could well position them to seize a “Magna Carta moment.”

After identifying three priority themes, the CEOs broke into groups to formulate strategies to elevate a message related to those themes in popular culture. They then presented their ideas to each other, assessing the viability of each through the lens of current events and any relevant trends or emerging signals they see foreshadowing the future landscape of public policy.

“No one can predict the future, but a smart think tank CEO is always looking ahead and testing assumptions about future challenges and opportunities,” remarks Žilvinas Šilėnas, CEO of Lithuanian Free Market Institute. “We are committed to making preparations now so that our capacity and strategy are highly relevant to what is ahead.”

Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute in Colorado comments on his group’s chosen theme.

Recognizing the accelerated rise of populism in both the United States and Europe, in the end the CEOs chose to focus their energies on a strategy to harness and redirect public discontent via a campaign designed to articulate the relationship between big government and injustice. Their discussion included a candid assessment of the network’s current capacities and the areas that would need to be strengthened to better position itself — not just for a coordinated campaign in the short term, but also for the future demands of the classical liberal cause.

During the final session of the summit, participants developed plans for testing their new strategies in the coming months and for coordinating more effectively as a network. Those next steps will answer a question posed by Dr. Stephen Davies at the conclusion of his lecture about the Magna Carta, which suggested that while the future may not be something we can engineer, it is our challenge and opportunity to anticipate “Magna Carta moments” now and plan strategically for them.

At the conclusion of the Summit in Windsor (near Runnymede), the participants traveled to London to join Atlas Network’s inaugural Europe Liberty Forum, co-hosted by Institute of Economic Affairs. The forum attracted think tank leaders, journalists, politicians and VIPs from all over Europe to share best practices and celebrate successful think tank projects.

Those two events play an important role within Atlas Network’s “Coach, Compete, Celebrate” model (see page 9), an approach that seeks to strengthen the worldwide freedom movement by expanding and energizing the global network of think tank leaders and staff through training and friendly competition to continually inspire and redefine excellence in advancing the cause of liberty.

“The CEO summit and Liberty Forum gave me clear ideas to leverage my organization’s strengths to help the global network of think tanks promoting liberty,” said Joe Lehman, president and CEO of Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. “I’m excited to be a part of that force for good.”

Throughout this article are links to some of the readings assigned to summit participants prior to gathering: